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India's Tiger Population Stabilizing, Census Shows - 2004-01-23

In eastern India, preliminary results from a census show that the tiger population could be stabilizing in this region. India has the world's largest tiger population - and is the frontline country in the battle to save the endangered big cat, which survives in only a handful of Asian countries.

The Sunderbans mangrove forest stretches over nearly 10,000 square kilometers along the India-Bangladesh border. It is one of nine Indian sanctuaries taking part in a three-decade-old project to save the tiger.

A team of Indian forest workers recently scoured the swampy forest for a week to collect impressions of the paw prints of the big cat to assess their numbers.

Pradeep Vyas, field director at the Sunderbans tiger reserve, says the paw mark collection is about 20 percent higher than the last census. He says even more encouraging is the fact that some of the marks belong to tiger cubs.

"My feeling is certainly number of tiger cubs has increased. This is a good sign because if the young generation is coming up ... this is an indication of healthy habitat," he explained.

The detailed assessment of the latest census will be ready in three months. But the preliminary data is heartening for conservationists who have been struggling to reverse the steady decline in India's tiger population.

From about 5,000 tigers in the 1970's, the number has plummeted to an estimated 3,500.

In the Sunderbans reserve and other Indian sanctuaries, the tiger is under threat from two fronts - poaching and habitat destruction.

Organized crime networks poach the tiger to meet the huge demand in East Asian countries for traditional medicines that use tiger bones and other parts. The Indian tiger has been increasingly targeted over the past decade as tiger numbers dwindled in East Asia.

The sanctuaries are also under pressure from India's growing population. Poor villagers encroach into forests to farm or live off forest produce. They also poach animals such as deer for food, depleting the tiger's stock. As man and animal compete for space and food, they target each other.

Dipankar Ghosh from the Wildlife Trust of India says this poses a huge challenge to conservation efforts.

"It has got two-way impact," he explained. "One is prey species goes down, and next is man-animal conflict also increases. Whenever there is a tiger straying in a village or whenever there is a tiger killing human beings, a lot of hue and cry is raised…. That also has a negative impact for the conservation process."

In the Sunderbans forest, tigers have killed an estimated 50 villagers a year in recent times. Villagers in turn once slaughtered tigers that strayed into their settlements.

But in the last two years, forest officials in the Sunderbans have begun projects to improve the economic condition of villagers. They also have explained the need to protect tigers to maintain the ecosystem on which villagers depend.

Mr. Vyas says this as resulted in a huge "attitude shift." Instead of killing tigers that stray outside the forest, villagers now help forest officials capture them.

"Our relationship with the villagers has improved considerably, and in last two years we have actually captured or immobilized 16 tigers from the villages or from the periphery and released them back in the wild," he said.

Mr. Vyas and other wildlife officials say the real challenge for conservationists is to make people near the sanctuaries less dependant on the forest to reduce pressure on the eco-system.

The Sunderbans forests are home to the largest number of tigers in a single region in the world. There are an estimated 270 tigers on the Indian side and to 400 in Bangladesh.